"Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart." ~ William Wordsworth

The Writing Life Too

And if you're reading this, it means you're not writing.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

A book is like a garden carried in your pocket. ~ Chinese proverb
"Recognition is everything you write for; it's much more than money.  You want your books to be valued. It's the basic aspiration of a serious writer." ~William Kennedy
Overcast skies this morning and the temperatures are dropping. Last night I went to see Inception with friends and it sparked a lively discussion afterward. One friend flat-out hated it. I pointed out plot holes and the need far more backstory and a lot less repetition. But the concept is original (such a rarity in summer block busters) and intriguing even though it's difficult to follow at times and the opening drops you smack in the middle of action that you don't understand. And you need to see this as a plot-driven, not character driven sci-fi thriller. In those categories, it delivers.  

Vivian Gornick an essayist, critic and memoirist honed in on language and details to develop her writing practice. She described it this way: “Whenever I had a writing problem, instead of facing it I escalated the emotionalism blindly…..Eventually my skin crawled when I saw what I had done. I saw that this was not writing and that I wanted to be a writer. I know that I had to teach myself how to write a simple sentence, and I saw in time that this was my only gift, really. I would never be a lyrical writer or a fiction writer, and if I was going to make writing beautiful, I would have to believe rendering clear, simple, actual thoughts on the page was beautiful. I had to believe that, and I came to believe that. That’s really been the struggle. I couldn’t write any faster or better than I had before; I couldn’t apply myself any better—that remains. I didn’t produce anywhere near as much as I should have, but I was determined that whatever I did produce was going to be written well.
The important thing was knowing what was decent writing, how to know when I was writing a sentence that had no substance. I came to understand that if I forced myself to use the sentence to calm down, I could think my way through the sentence. If you’re really thinking, writing is exciting no matter how you’re doing it, through some lyrical piece of prose poetry or poetry or fiction. You have to believe the same beauty goes with nonfiction writing. Learning that was really like a form of therapy.”  

Try this When I was recovering from my car accident I spent a lot of time lying in bed or on my couch listening to the rain, music, or talk radio, or my inner radio station which was broadcast from a dangerous neighborhood. Eventually, because I still couldn’t read much and I was bored out of my ever-loving mind, I started watching television. Actually I often just listened to it so I wouldn’t strain my eyes. Because I wanted to escape the pityfest that was me, at first I tuned into the Travel Channel, but often the camera was panning at a dizzying speed and the host was cheerily munching on goat scrotum or some kind of offal, so this wasn’t helping my symptoms. And a little roasted bone marrow, pig’s head stew, and guinea pig go a long way in my imagination.

So I succumbed to the Food Network’s soothing instructions. True there are porn-like close up images of pasta and chocolate, but the instructor’s cheery patter assured me and other the viewers that concocting Beef Bourguignon or Grilled Panzanella or Lobster Parfaits were doable. In case you don’t watch people boiling water on television, often these professionals would pause from time to time to demonstrate a knife technique, or how to clean mushrooms, or explain deglazing, or why they added salt to the pasta water. They were demystifying a process. Breaking it down and demonstrating it. Alas, writers often cannot find their personal diva to perform this same behind-the-curtains explanation when it comes to writing on the Writing Network. (If you have the funding and want to bankroll this network, please contact me). However, for years now I’ve been dissecting stories with students, showing them the tricks and gadgets that writers employed to create a story. I point out the use of flashbacks and transitions and extended metaphors and parallelism and themes.

Sort of like undressing the magician and showing the hidden pockets and magnets and such. You too can do this. You too can search for techniques that you can emulate. One easy way to do it is to choose one technique at a time. For a week notice voice, or use of metaphors, or examine viewpoint, or pacing. Or analyze how many times writers employ unanswered questions and cliffhangers. Then switch to a new technique. Keep notes about your discoveries in your writer’s notebook—jot them down like a researcher. Because the more you collect and analyze and examine, the easier it becomes to emulate.

Friday, July 30, 2010

"What you risk reveals what you value."Jeanette Winterson (Written on the Body)
I was in the woods for a few days near the Clackamas River. The headwaters are in the Cascades and it runs about 80 miles before it joins the Willamette River and is popular for whitewater rafting and fishing. When we were eating breakfast yesterday we all mentioned that we wished that we could spend a few more days away from reality. I've always been drawn to rivers and when I was seven our family moved to a house that was across the street from a creek. It was the burbling, tree-lined type and it smelled like rocks and fish and ferns. Whenever I was near the creek the rest of the world disappeared and the rhythms of water filled my senses. I can travel to that creekside in my memory so easily, can feel the springy ground beneath my feet and  see the dappled quality of light. Sitting at my desk again, I feel like part of me is back near the river,  back in precious stillness that is so nourishing and deepening. 

As I was driving home from the river yesterday, Talk of the Nation featured authors talking about the river of words and why they write.
"Ralph Eubanks, author of The House At The End Of The Road and Ever Is A Long Time, tells NPR's Tony Cox that he finds inspiration in something writer Paul Hendrickson once told him.
Hendrickson said, "Never forget that someone asked you to tell your story" — and as a memoir writer, Eubanks feels fortunate to be able to tell that story.
Hendrickson also quoted Walker Evans to Eubanks, saying, "When you write, you always want to capture the cruel radiance of what is."
That, Eubanks says, is what helps him dig deep down into himself."

I pulled into my garage and pulled out my notebook to write down "cruel radiance of what is." 
To hear the conversation go to this link. If you'd like to contribute your reasons for writing on this blog contact me at jessicapage(at)spiritone(dot)com

Now the morning news is covering the oil spill from a ruptured pipe on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, and how it threatens to pollute Lake Michigan. The company responsible for the spill (Enbridge Energy Partners) has had repeated violations before this one. I think we should change our language about these events--spill implies a child knocking over a glass of milk, doesn't hint at the destruction of oil in a body of water.
We are all keepers of the rivers.

Monday, July 26, 2010

When I was in Wisconsin last week, among the many sights and experiences, I spotted a bear cub a few blocks from my parents' place. They live on a lake in northern Wisconsin where there is not much around including people and conveniences such as hospitals or doctors that you might desire when you're heading into your ninth decade. But I digress. Back to the cub. He/she was tallish....about the size of a human 8 or 9-year old.  Now, I'm calling him/her a cub because it was likely born this past winter or spring and looked about six months old. It was rustling along the side of the road as we were about to drive past, but I stopped out of homage. And wondering where the mom bear was.
Back to writing: The Bear Deluxe Magazine Presents
Every Story Begins Somewhere

Judge: Jim Lynch
The Highest Tide and Border Songs

Winner: $1,000 and publication in The Bear Deluxe Magazine
Finalists (2-3): Honorable mention and publication consideration
Entries must be postmarked by September 8, 2010.
Mail your entry to:
Doug Fir Fiction Award
Orlo/The Bear Deluxe Magazine
810 SE Belmont #5
Portland, OR  97214 USA

Submission Guidelines
The Bear Deluxe Magazine welcomes submissions of previously unpublished short stories up to 5,000 words, relating to a sense of place or the natural world, interpreted as broadly or narrowly as you wish. Simultaneous submissions are not permitted. Multiple submissions are allowed but must be mailed separately with separate entry fees. Upon acceptance, Orlo and The Bear Deluxe Magazine assume first-and one-time print publishing rights, and Web-publishing rights for the period of one year following print publication.

Entry Requirements
•        An entry fee of $15. Make your check or money order in U.S. dollars, drawn on a U.S. bank, payable to Orlo/The Bear Deluxe Magazine. All entrants receive a copy of the issue in which the winner appears. All entry fees are nonrefundable.
•        A self-addressed, stamped envelope for notification of contest results if email address is not included on your title page with contact information.

For complete guidelines, formatting requirements and email submissions, visit www.beardeluxe.org

John Callahan—Author / Cartoonist / Songwriter

July 1951-July 24, 2010 
For more on his life and work, check out his website.
"The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn't live boldly enough, that they didn't invest enough heart, didn't love enough. Nothing else really counts at all." ~ Ted Hughes

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Sent from the always-creative Jennie Shortridge:
I'm sending you an announcement about an exciting project I'm working on for this fall along with my partner Garth Stein. "The Novel: Live!"  is a writing marathon to be performed by 36 Northwest authors* in under a week, and yes, in front of a live audience, producing, at the end, a novel. Yes. I'm serious.

Writing may seem a rather quiet, solitary thing to most of us, but this may make you reconsider that presupposition. The Novel: Live! will be a rollicking event (with quiet moments, to be sure) with happy hours, live streaming on the web, drop-in web visits from luminary authors and experts, lifelines for marathon novelists . . . and the list goes on. 

Tell your friends, tell your readers, tell your students, or just come visit Hugo House in Seattle during the week of Oct. 11-16. We can't promise War and Peace, but we can promise a good time.
Mystery writers--if you're looking for a place that has collected all the top web sites and blogs written by mystery authors, here it is.
Morning skies are blue, blue and it's so still you can feel a heatwave on it's way,as if a dragon is lurking nearby, biding its time. I've added morning sounds to the stillness, fans whirring in the downstairs windows, the air conditioner humming upstairs, the sprinkler with its jingling and drumming in the back yard, a hose soaking the bed along the wall in the front, Scott Simon on NPR discussing the morning news, eulogizing Daniel Shorr.
Highs are supposed to reach 103 today in Washington D.C.Yesterday my sister sent photos of the flooding that happened in her neighborhood in Milwaukee where they received 7.5 inches of rain in one day, cars swimming in the street, her yard submerged.
 The weather is endlessly fascinating and in many parts of the world, always changing.I've come to realize that when a weatherman chirps about Doppler radar images and fronts and high pressure systems and low pressure systems that he is speaking a language of mystery and sky gods. There is so much I don't know about how weather works, how it arrives with bluster and certainty, although I listen in to explanations, they soon fall out of my memory in the same way that instructions for an appliance would. So until there is time in my life for studying the things I want to study--European history, the Impressionists, geology, the oceans, the Civil War-- I'll just need to stumble along, an observer, someone who collects data on a need-to-know basis. Have heart, keep writing, keep dreaming.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Don't you just love word books? In case you didn't know it Descriptionary: A Thematic Dictionary by Marc McCutcheon  is now available in a fourth edition. It's a perfect resource for those times (perhaps ever increasing) when a word is on the tip of your tongue, lurking in your memory, but you can only recall it's associations. And it's a thesaurus. Gotta love it.

The dawn sky was wispy with apricot shades and now it is Paul Newman's eyes blue. I'm working on some editing projects to clear them off my desk and resting my eyes every hour. Which makes working slow going--but what can you do?

One of my favorite rabblerousers/thinkers/life observers is Jeanette Winterson who hasn't been writing her monthly column lately, but she's resumed, commenting about how she begins writing a new book." ....but I feel that is changing, and that a new book wants to begin. The pressure has started.I can’t really explain how this happens, except that I get an idea, usually rapidly, that then ducks away and I have to go and find it. Sometimes I can’t find it – but if I do, and if I can, then the thing starts to happen – at least the relationship starts to happen. I am sure that everything is about relationship of one kind or another – to others, to the world, to ourselves, to our fears, to our dreams. The idea of solitariness isn’t quite right – even for a writer working alone, because the relationship with the idea, and later whatever characters join in – means that you are not as solitary as you seem. I used to think this was as lonely a life as Lighthousekeeping. Now it seems noisier, busier. Certainly more crowded."

Like Winterson, since this is summer, but in all seasons, I am taking pleasure in simple things--fresh berries, gardening, a vase of dahlias in the living room, reading the first poems of the morning. Today it's The Deposition by Anne Porter at The Writer's Almanac and  Falling W.S. Merwin.  I've jotted down Porter's lines
She'd gladly walk
Ten miles
In any weather
For a taste of God
in my writer's notebook and as always, every notation makes me feel rich.

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sometimes just being alive feels like raw flesh--vulnerable, responsive, irritable, in constant danger. Those are the times when I most need to sense my place among other people, to hear their stories and know they are mine as well. I badly need to be sure someone can hear me; I need to receive his answering cry.~ Sheldon Kopp
How to Get Unstuck
Most people become stuck at some point in life. Maybe it's grief, loss, rejection that brings us to a place, sometimes a hopeless place, where we cannot seem to right ourselves or move forward.  I've been feeling stuck lately myself--I was in a car accident two years ago and am still having a lot of symptoms from my head injuries. That enough already feeling has been dragging at me for weeks now and I'm weary of things, especially that I'm weary. So it was with a great deal of interest that I read the latest installment of advice at The Rumpus. In case you haven't heard of the Dear Sugar column, I wanted to pass it on and confess that I'm entranced with the beautiful writing, insights, and advice found there. Oh, and a word of warning.: Sugar is about the opposite of Dr. Phil and sometimes the language and topics are raw.....

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Description of a bad plot: How not to kill a mockingbird.
Writing Prompt
Write a scene that takes place in a diner--the kind that's been around a long time, with stools at the counter, booths along the edges, an old grill that has cooked thousands of meals. The place smells of coffee and fryer grease and onions sizzling. Who owns the place? What is the view outside the windows? Can you weave in some of the waitresses' back story and give her/their a voice that suits the place?  Who are the regulars?

Once you picture the diner, interrupt the routine with a stranger coming in the door. What does the stranger order? How does his/her presence create conflict?

Quick Take:
 Write about the marrow of your life, or the marrow of your character's life.
"If you want to write, kill the magic: a book is just a bunch of writing. Anyone can write a book. It might suck or be incomprehensible, but so what: it’s still a book. Nothing is stopping you right now from collecting all of your elementary school book reports, or drunken napkin scribbles, binding them together at Kinkos for $20, slapping a title on the cover, and qualifying as an author. Want to write a good book? Ok, but get in line since most pro authors are still trying to figure that out too.

Writing a good book, compared to a bad one, involves one thing. Work. No one wants to hear this, but if you take two books off any shelf, I’ll bet my pants the author of the better book worked harder than the author of the other one. Call it effort, study, practice, whatever. Sure there are tricks here and there, but really writing is a kind of work." ~ Scott Berkun

Monday, July 19, 2010

"The writer is something of a shape-changer and trickster, someone a little more treacherous, eccentric, and unpredictable than she at first appears, because she is continually buffeted and transformed by an inner life invisible from the outside. She may speak to you in complete sentences about what her day was like, but inside another life is being lived, one full of beauties and monstrosities, upheavals and transgressions. " ~ Eric Maisel

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Robin Oliveira Interview
 Q: As a medical professional, familiar with modern-day trauma, patient care, and the like, how did you translate your own experiences and emotions into your protagonist and the events of the story?
            Writing Mary’s development as a physician was a matter of reliving difficult moments from my work. At times I concentrated on remembering the terror I experienced my first day as an Intensive Care nurse, when my patients’ lives depended on my unseasoned skills. At other moments, I tapped into the confidence that developed when I became more experienced, when I could act, it seemed, without thinking. By using sense memory, I was able to imagine Mary’s more heightened moments.
 Q: Your novel is firmly based in research and the 19th century is breathing on every page, whispering or shrieking in every moment. Could you  pass along tips for researching for historical novels along with suggestions for how to turn research into narrative and not exposition?
 My first step in research is to read a good history text so that I know dates and important figures, thereby garnering as much solid factual data as I can. After I glean the facts, I turn to primary source material whenever possible: diaries, photographs, newspapers, government reports, letters, whatever I can find. I try to make my own impressions from the raw data while remembering that everyone has a point of view and that each historical period has its own modes and norms. For example, in writing My Name is Mary Sutter, I read Civil War era nurses’ letters that glossed over their difficult work with sentimental phrases of devotion to duty. This was a literary convention of personal correspondence of the time. So, even when examining primary source material, I am mindful of the myriad personal motivations of its writer. Also, I believe that while morés and values change, human nature does not. This fundamental belief guides my research and writing.
As in all fiction, details put the reader in the moment. When I do research, I learn as much as I can about the time period, including all sorts of arcane details about transportation, hygiene, living quarters, food, water quality, clothing, political situations, world affairs, furnishings, prices, etc. In early drafts, while trying to incorporate and learn the information, I tend to write boring expositional paragraphs and include more research than I need. This is a kind of clearing of the decks, so to speak, so that in subsequent drafts, the extraneous details fall away and only the relevant details remain. That's when the research becomes, to use an overused modifier, organic to the story.
Q: It's fascinating that you chose to include historical figures such as Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton, and even Abraham Lincoln in the story. Tell us more about your decision to include them and the particular challenges of incorporating real people in fiction.
 Because the story was, in part, about the medical and political unpreparedness of the divided country for the war, I came to believe that the full story couldn’t be told without the inclusion of the historic figures you mentioned. Had Dorothea Dix not been influenced by Florence Nightingale, had Lincoln not appointed Dorothea Dix, had Clara Barton not traveled into the battlefield, had George McClellan not dithered and delayed, then the history of the war and the history of medicine and nursing would have turned out differently. Therefore, they needed to be in the story.

The challenge of portraying real life characters with entrenched characterizations is just that. People might accuse you of conceit if they feel you have betrayed those characterizations when you reveal something previously unknown or forgotten that alters the long-held public perception of the historic person. But you don’t want to falsely portray them, either. So it’s a balance between the known and the newly known. I found historical figures easier to write than my fictional characters, however, because I could go back and read their writings to find out who they were, as well as consult newspapers and diaries for impressions of them by their contemporaries. They were a puzzle, but not as much as a puzzle as my own characters, who had no historical notes for me to refer to.
Q: How do you write about a woman who is ahead of her time yet still make her realistic?
 Just because society at a particular moment in history holds a certain set of morés does not mean that everyone will conform to them. A bright woman, infused with a desire that conflicts with her time period, is still a bright woman with a desire. It makes it easy to write her. Again, human nature hasn’t changed.
Q: Could you talk about how you wrote about a protagonist with flaws and the importance of these flaws?
             Any one of us could minutely detail the flaws of any of our relatives, friends, spouses, and loved ones. As writers we need to be able to describe our characters’ flaws just as intimately. Characters need flaws in order to make them believable. Character is desire, but character is also choice. A heroine’s or hero’s Achille’s heel will trip him or her up at a crucial point in the story when choices will make all the difference. To wit, a flawless heroine will make a perfect choice that will not be compelling in any sense. No flaw, no story. However, a flawed heroine will make a questionable choice that will create further dilemmas. And that is how a novel is developed.
 Q: Readers of this blog, like myself, are curious about how authors create such daunting and elaborate stories. Could you describe your writing process?
             The way to broaden a narrative is to create characters with subplots that either reflect or contrast with the protagonist’s arc in order to magnify theme. I learned this from a wonderful book called Rhythm in the Novel by E. K. Brown, published by the University of Toronto Press in 1950. Discover this principle, and you will see it everywhere. Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, and Gone With the Wind all work their elaborate and expansive stories based on this one principle. Each secondary character lives an arc that intersects with the main character’s arc. These characters all make decisions. A writer follows the consequences of those individuals' decisions. What is it that the secondary character wants that is different than what the main character wants? How do those choices move the story along? How do those choices illuminate the larger theme? Or, when the characters want the same thing, do they go about getting it in different ways? (Think Sense and Sensibility.) The trick is to make certain that the arcs come together from time to time, reflect on one another, and then at the climax of the novel come together in a way that illustrates the main character’s moment of crisis, redemption, or alteration. Working out all the desires, choices, and consequences can be mind-bending and time-consuming, but it results in a tale that seems to represent multitudes, as Brown so aptly puts it.
Q:What do you think is the importance of historical fiction for today's readers and for our times?
 The best historical fiction interprets humanity. The best use of literature, historical or not, is to hold a mirror to our lives and force us to examine who we have been and who we are, so that, for instance, as we stumble around trying to cap a runaway well in the deep ocean or react violently to a Muslim world in turmoil, historical fiction can point the finger and say, Is there any chance we might learn something from our previous experience and apply it here?
Q: What are you working on now?
 A new novel of historical fiction.
Q: What books are on your night stand?
            Mrs. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell
            Stoner, by John Williams
            The Following Story, by Cees Nooteboom
            The Good Soldier, by Ford Maddox Ford
            Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes
            Woodsburner, by John Pipkin
            Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

"A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others." ~ William Faulkner

Friday, July 16, 2010

A big thanks

To the guest bloggers who filled in while I was away...Got in late last night and was so happy to be in the cool air of the Northwest after the sultry, muggy weather of the upper Midwest. Will be translating my jottings from my writer's notebook into a post. My father was touched and surprised by his 80th birthday party and it all turned out well and we all sang and laughed together into the night.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Your Funniest Character? Look in the Mirror.

Last term, I met one of my UO journalism students for coffee at Marche Café, then stopped by the restroom before sauntering a quarter mile through campus to the faculty office. In a blog post last year, Jessica described me as “stylish.” That day, I believed myself to look particularly chic in a denim jacket and a sassy little flowered skirt under which I’d hidden my bicycle shorts. Yup, I had it going on.The secretary stood in the office talking with her assistant, who was one of my students. They paused as I walked in, and I felt them looking at me as I turned to the photocopier.I thought they were admiring my fashion sense until the secretary drew in a breath. “Melissa!” she hissed.“Your skirt!”
“What about it?” I turned to find both women staring in horror.

We’ve all experienced wardrobe malfunctions; my mother walked out of K-Mart once with a toilet seat cover stuck to her jeans, and my colleague taught a 90-minute writing workshop with his fly open. Perhaps people love us more once we’ve shown ourselves as unable to consistently button, zip, check our back in the mirror before walking out into the world. I hope so. Reluctantly, I looked over my shoulder in the office that day to discover a fashion travesty—I’d tucked the back hem of my skirt up into the waistband of my bicycle shorts.The secretary’s assistant, a dear young woman, piped up as I yanked down the offending fabric. “I thought you meant to do that,” she said. “It was cute.”

A reminder not to take myself too seriously? Yes.I laughed that day in the office, and I kept laughing as I mentally retraced my steps from Marche Café, gauging how many people must have seen me.I’d better be amused.I write short humorous essays as a career, and I teach workshops to help others do the same. If I can’t make fun of myself, I’ve got a serious problem.

David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, and all of the other terrific humorous essayists writing today understand a key component of the genre: if you’re going to poke fun at other people in your writing, you must poke twice as much fun at yourself. 

That day on campus, I simply provided myself with good material.The trick, as I see it, is to create yourself as a character. Who do you want to be on the page? I’m not suggesting that you make up a persona for yourself—surely, you’re already quirky and compelling enough simply based on your decision to become a writer. But how can you examine your own eccentricities, your own little anxieties and neurosis and habits in order to become a funny and interesting narrator?

I asked myself this question before I wrote my memoir Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood (Seal, 2009).I wasn’t gay and living in France like Sedaris. I didn’t possess a squeaky voice and a passion for history like Vowell. I wasn’t Asian like one of my favorite writers, Sandra Tsing Loh. I was straight, white, laughably naïve—in short, I really was a gringa, and so I presented myself as such. How can you begin creating yourself as a character in your humorous essays and other nonfiction pieces? 

Ask yourself the following questions:What physical habits do I exhibit when I’m nervous, scared, angry, and/or excited? 
What are my particular speech patterns, favorite slang and curse words, most loved clichés and foreign phrases. 
When I’m with a group of friends and they poke fun at me, what do they tend to laugh about in particular?
What are some of the most embarrassing things that have happened to me in my lifetime, and what’s funny about each incident? 
Keeping this last question in mind, you’ll never have to writhe in humiliation over your own foibles again. Dog poop on your shoe? Spinach in your teeth? Shirt inside out and backwards as mine was last week? No worries—just laugh and know that you’ve given yourself one more funny anecdote to use in your writing. Melissa Hart blogs for emerging writers at www.butt2chair.wordpress.com.  Find her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter at MelissaMHart.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Jessica is still away, and my name is Mary Meredith Drew.  I’m writing about silences, those gaps that can appear in the production of women writers.  In terms of writing, the gaps can be seen as time and opportunities lost, but look below the surface and you might find a life being lived.  It has taken me the entire day, in fact, to get these few words out to you.  I’ve had some interruptions.
Today turned out to be perfect for writing about my topic.  Because this week my grandchildren, ages 5 and 6, are staying with me, hungry every hour, playing and laughing and calling me away from my thoughts about blogging and what and how I will do that when it’s almost time for swimming lessons and my house is full to the brim with their hugging and jumping and rolling and wanting more and more of food of movies of games and bubbles and crying and loving.  Then the little pushes, the sidelong glances in case I’m watching, the pouting and whining and stomping away, sad little faces and tired sighs that tug at my heart.
“Grandma, what are you doing?  I want you in here with me.”
These are the kinds of days that can turn to weeks and months and years for mothers and grandmothers.  They can culminate in what Tillie Olsen has called silences.  Stretches of time in the lives of women writers when there is no apparent production in terms of publishable output.  I know some writers who are mothers, wives, daughters of older parents, who say they can find time in between cooking and washing and wiping tears, maybe before or after their job in the world, to write fifteen minutes here, a half hour there, before the kids wake up or after they’re asleep.  This is assuming there is any energy left in the depleted body and psyche of the writer by the time she can sit down at her desk.  And assuming any train of thought or clarity of purpose can be maintained with such a schedule.
I first read Silences  in 1980 or so, during naptime at the infant care center where I worked.  I was a single mom and a student at the University of Oregon.  I longed to write, felt called to write, but I never had the energy to write beyond the essays, curriculum plans and term papers that made up my graduate school work.  I didn’t know any writers, didn’t know how to start.  I took a few writing classes, but they turned out to be critique groups without context.  No instruction, no information, just critique.  The learning curve was far too slow for me, and I fell silent (as a writer) for years.  Reading Silences all those years ago, I realized I was not alone.
Tillie Olsen published her first book at fifty.  She said this about her writing life:  
"The years when I should have been writing, my hands and being were at other (inescapable) tasks...the habits of a lifetime when everything else had to come before writing are not easily broken, even when circumstances now often make it possible for writing to be first; habits of years--response to others, distractibility, responsibility for daily matters--stay with you, mark you, become you.  The cost of “discontinuity” (that pattern still imposed on women) is such a weight of things unsaid, an accumulation of material so great, that everything starts up something else in me; what should take weeks, takes me sometimes months to write; what should take months, takes years."
Later in Silences, Olsen quotes Margaret Walker, who spent thirty years on her book Jubilee.  “It is humanly impossible for a woman who is a wife and mother to work on a regular teaching job and write,” she says.  
And Katherine Ann Porter: 
" It seems to me that a great deal of the upbringing of women encourages the dispersion of the self in many small bits, and that the practice of any kind of art demands a corralling and concentrating of that self and its always insufficient energies...You’re brought up with the...curious idea of feminine availability in all spiritual ways, and in giving service to anyone who demands it.  And I suppose that’s why it has taken me twenty years to write this novel; it’s been interrupted by just anyone who could jimmy his way into my life."
As I read about the challenges faced by these women, and their persistence in the face of extreme demands, I feel reassured.  I’m not looking for excuses, but it’s not about that anyway. No one is waiting for me to explain why I consider myself a beginning writer even though I am a grandmother.  But I continue to search for ways to explain it to myself.  I’ve done a lot of the things I wanted to do as a young woman, and now I’m writing, the thing I’ve wanted to do all my life.  To everything there is a season, and after quite a long "seasoning," here I am, ready and willing.  As soon as the kids go home.
Thank you Jessica,  valued mentor and friend, for the opportunity to share these perspectives I’ve been gathering.  I hope women writers draw comfort from the words of our sisters who have paved the way, who persevered and eventually arrived at their destinations.  In Tillie Olsen's words, "... I do not regret the shape my life has taken, although it is not the one I would have chosen, ... years ago."

Sunday, July 11, 2010

On Elwyn Brooks White (July 11, 1899 – October 1, 1985): “I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult.”

If that was how E. B. White started his day, I think he was successful on all counts including, perhaps, the planning. How could you not have fun writing Stuart Little?

His essays not only attempted to change the world but gave an uncanny prophecy for his beloved New York in From Here to New York, written in 1949. "A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate millions... Of all targets New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm."

White graduated from Cornell in 1921 and, like all male students named White, was given the nickname Andy after Andrew Dickson White, co-founder of the university. While at Cornell, White studied under William J. Strunk, Jr. Strunk had written a small style handbook called the Little Book and published it privately. (Today we’d say it was self-published?) In 1959, White rewrote Strunk’s original, adding a chapter, and turning it into Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Now Will Strunk, an essay originally published in The New Yorker, and written by White serves as the introduction to this little book. New editions have been published since White’s death, with an illustrated version in 2005. A New York composer opened a short opera based on the book in 2005 as well. It must have been short considering the size of this powerful book.

I could add the list of friends he made while working at The New Yorker, including the woman he would marry, Katherine Sergeant Angell. Well, perhaps I should. Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and James Thurber would have made having “one hell of a good time” easy.
Judy Bouchard

Friday, July 09, 2010

Imagine for a moment that you write like, J.K. Rowling.....

.....can you see it?  People asking for you to speak at graduation ceremonies, the book deals, the movies, the amusement park dedicated to your characters.  Young readers and writers everywhere in awe of your talent, everyone knows your name, you have arrived!

Sounds good, doesn't it?

Now, wake up you will NEVER be able to write like J.K.Rowling; so don't even try!

Did I burst your bubble?  Good!  The reason that you will never be able to write like J.K. Rowling is because......
YOU ARE NOT J.K. ROWLING!!!!!!I must admit this was me and the dream of being able to be like her, well it was huge!  Than I came across a book: Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing and it made me realize that I will never be like all of those amazing writers who have come before me and would you like to know why??  Because I am Dianna Sandora and I just like you, have my own "voice".  I must admit I had no idea what this meant, but I love Les Edgerton and so when I saw this book by him I decided to get it and I am so glad that I did.

Your voice is what makes you, well you.  Les explains that the things that you do and the way that you say things is what will draw an agent, a publisher and your future readers to you!  The key to finding your own voice:  BE YOURSELF!  Huh, imagine that!

I highly encourage you to read this book!  It will help you to find what you had all along, Your Voice!

I want to thank Jessica for the privilege of posting on her blog.  To your writing success,
Dianna Sandora
Jessica is on vacation.  I'm honored she is allowing me to horn in for a day.

Some famous writer-person, it is said, was once asked if he wrote on a schedule or just waited for his muse to strike.  He replied, in what I like to imagine as a fruity quaver, "Oh, my dear.  I always wait for my muse to strike.  And she strikes every morning at ten o'clock."

Well, this is a fine little answer, it is, and I was mightily impressed by it--enough so that I made a point of parking my fanny in my writing chair the next day at ten o'clock.  My writing chair faces my writing desk in my writing room, and my writing room has a little window in it to let the muse in.  There's a chickadee house directly outside the window.  It's a great set-up.

The ten-o'clock idea was working pretty well, except that punctuality has never been my strong suit, and let's face it:  that writing chair is there all day and night.  It's not going anywhere.  Besides, if that famous writer-person was really all that great, I would have remembered his name, wouldn't I've?  And no, it's not like remembering where I left my checkbook or what your birthday is or what point I was trying to make when I started this paragraph.  Those are not the same kind of thing at all.

There are two chickadees hauling in grubs to that birdhouse at the rate of about one a minute.  They're making a compelling case for watching chickadees.

Let's see.  I have two basic assignments:  just need to pick one.  I'm at the point in my novel where I have to write the rape scene.  And I'll be needing another post for my humor column.  I just cut something out of the paper about a Canadian gang of feces-flinging bandits.  There's got to be a use for that.  Hell, if I can't work that into a reference to the Republican National Committee, I'm not even trying.  I should have my Boffo Humor Writer badge ripped right off my chest, if they made one, which they don't, but they should.  So that settles that.  I can just set that aside, because it's going to write itself.  Let's rev up the old muse for the rape scene, instead.

Rape scene.  Rape scene.  Not a lot of call for those in a humor writer's life, but it's just writing and a good writer can do it.  It's simply a matter of careful word choice, proper visualization, and deliberately steering away from the trite and true.  Hmm.  What's another word for "thrust" and "throbbing manhood?"  How about "poke at" and "aching..." wait a minute.  This could totally work if we changed the setting to the urologist's office.  Thank you, muse.

That really should be a scene in a whole new story, though.  So that's three things I could be working on.  But look:  I'm already up to 480 words today.  Is there any rule saying they had to be related words?  There's a word for that, that jumping-around, rambling discourse.  Dyslexic?  No.  Desultory.  Wow.  Pulled that one out of a hat, I did.  Take that, checkbook, birthday and point.  And look where we are now.  536 words.  In the can, baby, in the can.

Murr Brewster
Visiting from:  Murrmurrs

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Magic Eye, Tarot and Elements in Writing

A Guest Blog by Yoly

Most human writers possess five eyes. If you are endowed with two normal visual orbs, that accounts for two of them.

One of the five is what is referred to as the "third eye." Wordnetweb defines it thusly:
"...a sensory structure capable of light reception located on the dorsal side of the diencephalon in various reptiles..."

But we've already decided you are not a reptile, so we'll need to go with the Wikipedia definition:

"The third eye (also known as the inner eye) is a mystical and esoteric concept referring in part to the ajna (brow) chakra in certain Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. It is also spoken of as the gate that leads within to inner realms and spaces of higher consciousness."

So that's the third.

Then there's the fourth: the eye that goes inside when you're thinking about something more mundane. For example, while driving down the street, you've been replaying a blurb on "Murrmurrs" or wondering what your dog's horoscope means.

Then there's the fifth eye. That's the one writers have.

Right about now, you might be giving me the sixth eye—the evil eye—but that only exists in fiction.

Some people might argue that the third and fifth eye are the same thing. Let them. Be peaceful and smug knowing they're not.

Writing is magic. If you peer into a hole in the air with the fifth eye, you'll witness stories unfold, lives emerge, and characters come and go. Only true writers possess this key to other universes and often bump into each other and each others' stories. This can be annoying—especially if you've worked on a novel for years and, just as you are ready to submit it, your pal pops out with your idea in a short story.

We are all just channelers of this other dimension and really haven't much to do with the actual creation of the story.

Through the use of our will and props, we can bend it this way or that, but the best we can do is to keep our channel clear and open, and when inspiration hits, be ready with pen or keyboard.

As a component of the magical process, all stories contain archetypes. If you ever feel stuck, pull out your Tarot deck (I'm sure you all have one) and sort out the Major Arcana. You'll have 22 compelling, thematic characters from which to build. Well, 21 as you should reserve the Fool. Pull one or two of these archetypes, particularly opposing types, and stick them together as your major characters. Select from the face cards for your minor characters. Draw out a couple of theme and plot cards from the Lower Arcana. Throw in the Fool and send him on his journey. Have him meet up with the archetypes along the way and see what happens. If you're familiar with the Tarot, just do a traditional Celtic spread and write the story as it appears.

All of the elements must be balanced in your story. By this, I'm not talking about character arc, acts and endings. I'm talking about air, earth, fire and water, as asserted by Empedocles of Acragas. Air represents intellect. Your character's intellect and the logic of your story must be present or it won't work. Earth represents the material, finite world. How you move your character through this, what obstacles he/she must overcome must be present or it won't be grounded in reality. Fire—this is the passion. What drives your characters? What are their secrets, their motives? What compels them and sets their story aflame? And water is emotion. Without the emotional component, your characters will be lifeless and dull. Without evoking emotion in your reader, your book or story will fail. But with all of these components properly fat, your story will balance (as well as your life, if you apply these principles to yourself).

Now you know a little about magic and more about writing using your fifth eye from the fifth element: Spirit. Always let your spirit guide you and even if your Fool plummets off the cliff, your readers will be bewitched into following.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

When Do We Know We’re Good at Something?

David here, the Unmotivated Motivational Writer, filling in, (I mean taking up a little bit of space), while Jessica is away on a well deserved break. While I’m thankful for the opportunity, there is this part of me saying to myself “Wow! Someone else likes my writing enough to let me be here taking up some 600 words.”

Now, I don’t know if that is just me and my way of thinking, or if it’s a trait in those of us who put words to paper and screen, or if it is in people in general. But I did start wondering about just when do we know we are good at something?

Maybe it’s when our parents take our work and hang it on the fridge. Or when they tell all their grown-up friends about all of the great things we do. Perhaps they may congratulate us at the dinner table for a job well done.

Maybe it’s when our neighbors comment on things we have done around the house. Or it could be when they truly seem interested in our daily work instead of just being nosey. Or perhaps it's when they sincerely ask for help instead of demanding it of us.

Maybe it’s when our friends start to wish they were more like us. Or perhaps it’s when classmates begin to cheat off our papers for a change. It could be when they want to do everything with us no matter what it may be.

Maybe it’s when our teachers stop marking up our papers with the red ink and begin putting smiley faces on them instead. Perhaps it is when they let us clap out the erasers or wash the chalkboards, or maybe they let us help by running important things around the school.

Maybe it’s when our co-workers ask us more questions than we care to answer. It could be when they follow us around picking up things we do or when they get upset when we are out for a few days and they have to fill in (pulling their hair out at the time).

Maybe it’s when bosses say they could not have done it without us. Or it could be when positive comments they make about us at meetings get back to us. Then again it could be when they keep insisting that we can never leave the place.

Maybe it’s when our children ask us for help on their homework or when picking out a nice outfit. Perhaps it's when they get older and realize just how much work we have done. Or, better yet, it could very well be when they look up at us and say "I want to be just like you." (Cue “Cats In The Cradle” by Harry Chapin).

Maybe it takes a lot of things for us to get to that point of believing. Perhaps a lot of people have to say things before we start believing them for ourselves. So many people can influence us throughout our lives. Parents, teachers, neighbors, classmates, friends, co-workers, bosses, clients, our kids, a kind word from a stranger, or being OKd to write a guest posting on a fellow writer’s blog can change the way we see ourselves.

Well, maybe.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Summer and such
Well, after its long-awaited arrival, more summer weather is riding into town on a heat wave. Supposed to be 98 by Thursday and I don't have the (50 pound) air conditioner hooked up yet (there has been one hot day this year so far).  On the bright side, I'm leaving town and while it usually feels like 98 in Wisconsin in July, it's supposed to be cooler than Oregon. My siblings and I are throwing our father a surprise party for his 80th birthday. Party planning from afar is always challenging, but it seems like it will all work out. And yesterday my new neighbor volunteered to water my plants, so if anyone has suggestions for a plant-watering thank you gift, let me know. While I'm gone, the blog will have guest writers that I know you'll enjoy, so check back in.

Meanwhile, I urge you to pay attention to the season as it unfurls with all it's color and heat. Last night I was leaving a restaurant after a meeting with a client about his manuscript. My brain was tired, my back hurt, and my to-do list was sort of making me crazy. But I walked about four blocks to my car and watched the sky, trying to drink in the beauty of it. To the east a band of stratus clouds were shot through with pinks and purples and then I noticed a bunch of runaway balloons heading south. I wondered who let the balloons go--was it a child? Was it an accident? Did their sudden flight bring on regret or delight?

Keep writing, keep noticing, have heart

Monday, July 05, 2010

"The time allotted to you is so short that if you lose one second you have already lost your whole life, for it is no longer, it is always just as long as the time you lose. So if you have started out on a walk, continue it whatever happens; you can only gain, you run no risk, in the end you may fall over a precipice perhaps, but had you turned back after the first steps and run downstairs you would have fallen at once – and not perhaps, but for certain. So if you find nothing in the corridors open the doors, and if you find nothing behind these doors there are more floors, and if you find nothing up there, don't worry, just leap up another flight of stairs. As long as you don't stop climbing, the stairs won't end, under your climbing feet they will go on growing upwards." ~ Franz Kafka  Memory Green

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Happy Fourth of July
For writers scavenging knows no season. For writers, scavenging is a necessary habit because good subjects aren’t just lying around waiting to be scooped up or alighting like a golden dove on the page.And writers need to keep adding to your vocabulary, honing their style and voice, and sharpening their metaphors. Thus we need to keep a stockpile of images, sensory details, memories, bits gathered from eavesdropping. Scavenging teaches us awareness and this noticing will make your writing more alive.A stockpile of images and bits can be helpful for all sorts of reasons. My gathering can trigger a poem, be the source code for an article or story. Scavenging can become a kind of writing practice or you can slip small the details you gather into fiction. Trust me, if you start gathering, you will use the material and you will feel rich.

I know this too well from my early morning poetry writing sessions. Sometimes my mind is dull when I first wake, so I’ll start writing about anything I can cling to—a dream from only moments earlier, the color of dawn, a bit of news on the radio. So to face off against that blankness I’ve become a collector of images, words, phrases, memories.

No matter what I'm working on I keep my writer's notebook open beside me. In it I gather words for my word list. On the open page next to me I've listed fey, tether, harbinger, splayed, scrim, squicked out and 'mad moonlight'. I've noted that Merwin was selected as Poet Laureate and have copied my favorite Merwin poem, Rain Light. It begins "All day the stars watch from long ago." Love that line. I've made a note about Jewel's interview on NPR and how she made a decision to strive for balance and make her whole life a work of art.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Sea Turtle Rescue
I find sea turtles to be mysterious and mythical and have always been grateful that the film Finding Nemo introduced children to them. This morning NPR featured a story on how the endangered nests are being transported. It gave me the hope I needed this morning because every time I think of the mess in the Gulf and the criminality that led to it, I'm almost ill with anger.
"As the oil spill coats Gulf Coast beaches, rescuers are hatching a daring plan to save as many as 70,000 sea turtle eggs from the disaster.
Each year, thousands of newly hatched sea turtles scramble from their nests in the Florida Panhandle's sandy beaches and Alabama coasts into the water. With those waters fouled by oil and chemical dispersant, a whole generation of sea turtles could be harmed or even destroyed."
"The creative process requires that you leave the external world and go to your private inner one. And while you dwell in this inner space, you don’t want to be distracted by the external world. A telephone ringing, a spouse rushing into the room in search of the car keys or the grocery list, a child shrieking in your ear demanding your attention — all these jerk you out of the private reality that is the writer’s life source. These are not just simple interruptions. When you are thoroughly immersed in your creative work they can feel like assaults, breaches of intimate boundaries.

Solitude contains and nurtures your inner world. It is here that we best access our self and the wealth of resources it holds. For most of us it’s the only place where we dare be fully ourselves. 
Flannery O’Connor once said, “I am never more completely myself than when I am writing.”

Think of solitude not as just a mood or sentiment but as your entrance to the imaginative theater where you project the illusions of sailing on the open sea, or taking a leisurely walk through a mountain village, or driving along city streets teeming with life, or sitting contentedly at home in your favorite chair. Solitude is where your mind opens to new possibilities and the currents of your creativity flow freely." Hal Zina Bennett

Friday, July 02, 2010

Well, it feels like this day has been a whirlwind, but when I think back on it, I'm afraid not many of you would agree. I'm back at my desk at 10 p.m for a few minutes, at that  pause in the day when it's time to turn off the computer and start shifting toward dream time. In the distance someone is shooting off fireworks and I can hear the odd percussions and crackles from afar. It rained off and on today after it seemed like the rains had finally left our region. But this afternoon I stepped outside and instead of the usual sodden smell that's accompanied most of the way-too-long-lasting spring rains here, since it's been sunny and dry recently, the world smelled like flowers and grass and earth. Clean rain. Not, oh man, it's raining again rain. The kind that poems are made of. The smells you imagine when you're dying or notice when you're young.

I hope during this holiday weekend you  notice all the delights around you.

 But here's the real reason I'm really writing tonight: my The Writing Life newsletter is on a brief hiatus. It will reappear in August. I appreciate your reading it and beg your indulgence as I complete the tasks at hand.
Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason mastery demands all of a person. ~ Albert Einstein
From Seven Days: A Diary by David Grossman published in the October 2008 issue of The Sun. Grossman lives in a suburb of Jerusalem and wrote his diary in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

He writes: “Several months have gone by since I finished my last book, and I felt that not writing was having a bad effect on me. When I’m not writing, I have a feeling that I don’t really understand anything; that everything that happens to me, all events and statements and encounters, exist only side by side, without any real contact between them. But the minute I begin writing a new story, everything suddenly becomes intertwined into a single cord: every event feeds into and imbues all other events with life. Every sight I see, every person I meet is a clue that’s been sent to me, waiting for me to decipher.”

Thursday, July 01, 2010

W.S. Merwin named 17th Poet Laureate
One of my real-life heroes is W.S. Merwin. His poetry is accessible yet deep and his imagery, often about some aspect of nature,  makes me see the world in new ways and expresses his Zen Bhuddism beliefs.  He plants endangered palm trees on his Hawaiin property where he's lived since the 1970s. He's wise and kind and modest and deserving the honor. The last time I heard him read he began the evening by reading an Emily Dickinson poem. Oh and he's won two Pulitzers and a National Book Award for his work.

In the grim days after the 9/11 attack I kept watching news coverage and tuning into NPR, hungry for news, needing the voices of strangers to penetrate my sorrow and worry. Knowing that the attack was going to send the country into a turmoil that was likely unrecoverable (how right I was). And then NPR featured a program where they contacted well-known poets for their words of comfort. Merwin was in France at the time, and when his voice came over the radio, grandfatherly and calm, I finally felt some solace.

He said of the honor: "I always shied away from commitments to Washington — I like living in Hawaii," said Merwin, 82, from his home on Maui. "I generally make a couple of trips a year and do some readings, but I think we worked out a way that this is going to work, and there are some places for it to expand."

As for the public responsibilities of the position, he says that it will be a challenge: "I don't have e-mail, and I don't want it. And I don't like saying no to people — I do like leading a very quiet life. I'd rather not do sound bites, but have real conversations with people."
Quick Take: Think cinematically.
"Forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you're inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won't. Habit is persistence in practice." ~Octavia Butler